Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The hoagies of privilege

Now that I'm neither blogging professionally nor working on a book partly about internet controversies, I know I can skip stories of the moment. I can see that Lena Dunham (!) rehomed her rescue dog (!!!) and decide to just let that one sit. It's not that I don't have, within me, 7438297423 words on Lambygate. I've just made a conscious choice not to put my energies towards bringing that potential document into existence.

However! I can't let the David Brooks sandwich story be. Short version: People on the left - liberals, leftists, progressives - might be annoyed at Brooks here for the wrong reasons. Or not exactly the wrong reasons - more like, they're only annoyed, I suspect, because it's a David Brooks column.

Before I go further with why I think this, let me backtrack and remind/explain what I'm referring to: David Brooks's latest NYT column is a quasi-endorsement of the Richard Reeves argument that the trouble with America today is that upper-middle class people don't know they're rich. Brooks, like Reeves, is right that the wealthy but not super-rich try really hard to keep their kids at least as well-off as they are. And Brooks has been on the limousine-liberal-hypocrisy beat for ages, one for which there is always a steady stream of material, so he chose wisely.

Where things go wrong: Brooks takes the privilege-awareness aspect of Reeves's argument - the one that was, at least, only a framing devise in his otherwise reasonable op-ed - and insists upon it:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
By "informal barriers" he means cultural capital. Taste, in the Bourdieusian sense:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
This is the passage that led to all the #trending mockery. Haha, said left-to-liberal Twitter, David Brooks thinks it's elitist to eat deli sandwiches! Or: David Brooks thinks elites know what striata baguettes are, when who knows what that is!

Here's Brooks's conclusion, which interests me more than the sandwich specifics:
We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.
This is... a "privilege" argument. It is the "privilege" argument. Brooks is saying not just that cultural capital exists (which, yes), but that it is actually the most important form of capital. He's saying that the subtle (ahem) distinctions - "hav[ing] the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality" - are the stuff elite status is really made of. Which is - I believe, and argue in The Perils of "Privilege" - missing the point. In the absence of capital-capital, cultural capital doesn't do a heck of a lot. And insisting upon specific giveaways - especially food and drink - never works, because kale and lattes and whatever came after those have long since made it out of whichever Park Slope or Berkeley corridor of artisanal luxe. It's an appealing argument, because cultural capital is a thing, and feels like a revelation when you first learn about it. But ultimately, money - and race, gender, etc. - matter a whole lot more than ingredient expertise.

Where have we seen this flawed idea before? The left! On the left - except in some newly-prominent pockets of the socialist left - it's been one big mutual privilege-accusation-fest for the past decade. Everyone's secret, not-admitted, subtly-expressed privileges were forever being revealed by people just as privileged. That was blog comment threads! It happened offline as well! Until... I don't know, maybe until Trump, or maybe David Brooks's latest column, progressive discourse often involved fancy people accusing one another of recognizing gourmet ingredients, or making ostentatious statements about not recognizing them, so as to suggest a scrappy past. This certainly also existed on the right - Charles Murray's "bubble" quiz! - but it sort of was progressivism, in a much deeper sense.

So yes, it was some mix of a relief and just bizarre to see a progressive consensus around the notion that structural inequality matters more than cured-meat classification. I can only hope that sticks. I'd like to think this means (my fellow) progressives actually get why the salami argument was wrong, and weren't just mocking a David Brooks column for its own sake.

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